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View From The North
March 4, 2009

A Look at Ontario Provincial Politics
by Mark Wegierski

[Ontario’s Major Role in Canadian Developments]

Ontario, Canada’s most populous province with 13 million people, is the destination of over half of immigrants to Canada. Toronto has especially become a cosmopolitan megalopolis, with close to half of its population consisting of “visible minorities,” a term of official usage. The Greater Toronto Area (GTA) — which extends far beyond the city of Toronto itself — has a population approaching 5.5 million. In the current federal Parliament, 106 of 308 seats are from Ontario, giving that province’s voters enormous clout. The federal party that holds the majority of Ontario’s seats is likely to be the government of Canada.

Ontario’s provincial politics have followed a somewhat different course than federal politics in Ottawa. In 1942, the federal Conservative Party changed its name to “Progressive Conservative” in an attempt to attract the support of the Western-Canadian-based Progressive Party — although the name was also convenient in a society that often looked with disdain at right-wing politics. All the provincial wings of the party eventually followed suit in the name change.

From the 1940s, the provincial Progressive Conservatives successively won elections as the government of Ontario. However, the Progressive Conservatives under Premier Bill Davis from 1971–1985 had been largely hostile to any manifestations of social and cultural conservatism. They were pragmatic managers in a period of massive social upheaval and transformation largely generated by the Liberal federal government in Ottawa. Frank Miller, Bill Davis’ successor, was only briefly Premier, and was characterized as a political dinosaur by the media, the opposition parties, and some members of his own party. Miller’s defeat in 1985 ushered in two years of a Liberal-New Democratic Party (NDP) coalition.

The NDP was Canada’s (and Ontario’s) comparatively small but highly ideologically energetic social democratic party. In 1987, Liberal Premier David Peterson turned on his coalition partner and won a majority government. In 1990, the NDP rather unexpectedly won a majority in the provincial election that Peterson had imprudently called early. The NDP endeavored to push through a decidedly left-wing program, which resulted in wide unpopularity. It also tried to impose certain stringencies on the provincial civil service in the face of the recession in the early 1990; these stringencies undermined its usual support from the leadership of the big unions.

In 1995, Progressive Conservative Mike Harris was elected Premier of Ontario with a strong majority. The provincial Progressive Conservatives were decidedly more right-leaning than the federal wing of the party, partly because of the reaction to the five years of NDP government in Ontario. Indeed, the unpopularity of the NDP brought in Mike Harris and his so-called Common Sense Revolution — whose main focus were tax-cuts (especially for lower- and middle-income earners), as well as certain budgetary stringencies. Harris reduced welfare payments that had been among the highest in North America and introduced so-called “workfare.”

He also tried to bring some fiscal discipline to various public sector unions such as schoolteachers. Mike Harris won another majority government in 1999, but he resigned in 2002. Although Harris claimed to resign for personal reasons, the controversy over Walkerton — where a number of people died from an infected water-supply and for which the main blame was firmly placed in many people’s minds on Harris’s privatization policies — was certainly a factor. Subsequent to his departure from office, Harris continued to be demonized as much as during his eight years in power. He is today a touchstone of condemnation for most Canadian left-liberals. Anything negative that is happening in Ontario today is almost reflexively blamed on Harris.

The Progressive Conservative party leadership race between Ernie Eves and Jim Flaherty brought the decidedly more moderate Eves to the Premiership. However, in the October 2, 2003, election, the Liberals, under Dalton McGuinty, won 72 seats (with 46.5 percent of the popular vote); the Progressive Conservatives, under Ernie Eves, won 24 seats (with 34.6 percent); and the NDP, under Howard Hampton, won 7 seats (with 14.7 percent). (As in federal elections, the provincial election operates under a system of “first-past-the-post” where candidates are elected from geographic districts called ridings.)

The three candidates for the leadership in September 2004 were Jim Flaherty, Frank Klees, and John Tory. John Tory, a protégé of Bill Davis and a professed moderate or “Red Tory,” had an opportunity to build up his base in Toronto when he ran in an energetic but ultimately unsuccessful campaign for mayor in 2003.

Upon coming to power, Dalton McGuinty’s Liberals had broken a number of major promises to the electorate, in a fashion more egregious than usual, for example, raising taxes, running the provincial budget into a deficit, and introducing a health-care levy based on a person’s income (in support of the strained public healthcare system). So John Tory, who won the leadership of the PC party in 2004, was in a good position to pursue victory in the provincial election — fixed by provincial legislation for October 10, 2007.

However, in that election campaign, the PCs led by John Tory obsessively focused on the proposal to extend public funding to faith-based schools. Under the Canadian constitution, education is under the jurisdiction of the provinces. Catholic schooling had received public funding since Confederation, although it is possible that this has contributed to diluting the Catholic content of the “Catholic public” school system. Faith-based schools in Ontario today would include Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, and Sikh private schools.

However, along with the public money, the Ontario government’s supervision of what is taught in those schools would increase. So they might be required, for example, to include “anti-homophobic” instruction. In fact, the earlier proposal to give tax credits to parents paying for tuition at private schools was probably a more sensible educational policy plank. John Tory stubbornly lumbered along with his funding to faith-based schools proposal — which proved extremely unpopular with the Ontario electorate. This one issue diverted people’s attention away from what could be seen as the considerable failings of Dalton McGuinty.

Indeed, in the October 10, 2007, provincial election, the Liberals won 71 seats (with 42.2 percent of the vote), the PCs won 26 seats (with 31.6 percent of the vote), and the NDP won 10 seats (with 16.8 percent of the vote). The Greens had 8 percent of the vote but did not win a single seat. A referendum to change the current provincial first-past-the-post electoral system to a form of proportional representation (PR) lost by huge margins. Nevertheless, the turnout in this election — 52.8 percent of eligible voters — was the lowest in Ontario’s history. At least some of those not bothering to vote were probably “small-c conservatives.”

So Dalton McGuinty is solidly in office for at least four years. Ironically, John Tory — although he had failed to win even his own seat in the provincial election -- held on to the leadership of the Ontario PCs. Indeed, he received about a 67 percent endorsement by party delegates chosen by the general membership during a leadership review vote in 2008. Being a protégé of Bill Davis and representing the “moderate” or “Red Tory” wing of the party, it looks like John Tory is virtually unremovable from the leadership.

One could ask, in regard to many of the current-day infelicitous trends, who is more responsible for their enactment: those who enthusiastically carried them into practice, or those who — while claiming to represent an opposition — mostly went along with them, being mostly captured in their own minds by the directions of the times.

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View From The North is copyright © 2009 by Mark Wegierski and the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation, www.fgfBooks.com. All rights reserved. Please forward this copyright info and links when sending to friends and colleagues.

Mark Wegierski is a Toronto-based writer, social critic, and historical researcher and is published in major Canadian newspapers, as well as in U.S. scholarly journals such as Humanitas, Review of Metaphysics, and Telos, and in U.S. magazines such as Chronicles and The World & I. His writing has also appeared in Polish, British, and German publications.

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